Army Capt. Rose Sandecki

An Army nurse tending a wounded soldier in Vietnam. (U.S. Army photo)
An Army nurse tending a wounded soldier in Vietnam. (U.S. Army photo)

Army Nurse Capt. Rose Sandecki stood off in a corner as the general presented a soldier with a Purple Heart and a watch. The young soldier, whose legs had been blown off in service with the 25th Infantry Division, flung the watch back with the words, "I can't accept this, sir; it's not going to help me walk."

As the group abruptly dispersed, "I went over and just put my arms around him and hugged him," Sandecki recalled in her interview with Keith Walker for his "A Piece of My Heart: The Stories of 26 American Women Who Served in Vietnam." Sandecki said both she and the soldier were crying. "That was the one time I let the feelings down … It took a lot for him to do that, and it sort of said what this war was all about for me."

Rose Sandecki joined the Army in 1968 to "offer something to those young men over there" as a professional nurse. Within three months, she'd been sent to the 12th Evac Hospital at Cu Chi as head nurse in the surgical intensive care recovery room. In the October 1968 "post-Tet" war, MEDDAC units like the one at Cu Chi were "extremely busy." As she pointed out in her interview, "The idea of working in a military hospital is to patch up the soldier so he can go back to the battle again."

She couldn't let her guard down very often because the hospital team had to keep being effective for the next round of casualties. Sandecki dealt with her exhaustion and emotional fatigue like so many others did, by building up a wall: "Each day I went in and the more I saw, the thicker this wall became; it was sort of a skin protecting me from what was going on."

For Sandecki, allowing herself to cry with the young amputee was the first step in a long struggle of letting in the pain and truth of war. "It was incredible coming back a real changed person, one who was sarcastic and bitter about what was happening in America."

After some disappointing civilian nursing experiences, she went back to school for a master's degree in counseling. In 1979, the Veterans Administration established 90 outreach centers to provide readjustment counseling and other services for Vietnam vets across the country. In 1984, at the time of Sandecki's interview, there were 136 centers.

She was appointed team leader of one of the centers in 1981: "So I'm an activist basically, a social activist for women in the military, especially those in Vietnam." Sandecki believes that people are more conscious now of the fact that women served in the war even if they didn't carry weapons.

While providing counseling and management to help others come to terms with their wartime experiences, she has found some peace with hers: "I felt that 12 months over there was probably one of the most rewarding nursing experiences in my life, that I'll never equal that again."

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